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Carter's View

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held a 3-hour meeting late yesterday without taking any action on the proposed transfer of air rights from St. Thomas Church on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street and the University Club on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street to a proposed, 1,155-feet-tall, mixed use tower designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel at 53 West 53rd Street adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art.

The planned tower would also use unused air rights from the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of American Folk Art, which is adjacent to the site.

Most of the speakers at the hearing were residents from the neighborhood and civic organizations that were opposed to the air rights transfers and supportive of a resolution passed Community Board 5 March 13 that asked the commission not to recommend the transfers.

Jean Nouvel, shown at the left, told the commission that his design would "enrich the neighborhood and open the sky to the street," adding that "You can look at the skyline of the city and you can say 'The MOMA is here.'" He said the very narrow building would be open at the top and illuminated at night, describing the design as "elan."

Michael Sillerman, a lawyer representing the developer, Hines Interests, said the proposed tower is about 500 feet away from the church and the club and it moves bulk away from them and toward the higher density of the Avenue of the Americas.

A statement submitted by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects said that it felt "that the design and materials are 'light' enough that the height is not oppressive and does 'relate harmoniously.'"

David Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, whose projects include the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, spoke in support of the transfers, stating that the proposed tower was "an important project of design excellence."

The transfers are being sought under zoning provisions known as 74-711 and 74-79 that permit them if they provide for preservation maintenance programs for the properties transferring them and if the receiving property is "harmonious" with them.

A statement submitted by the Historic Districts Council maintained that "there is really no way a building so tall could do anything but tower over, eclipse and distract from its neighbors." "Both individual landmarks," the statement continued, "are hardly the dilapidated, abandoned buildings 74-711 and 74-79 were created to help." The statement also said that it "should be remembered that there are other individual landmarks just across the street that...will endure all of the pain, and none of the gain."

Christabel Gough, the executive director of the Society for the Architecture of the City, told the commission that "if the Modern Museum had been landmarked..., it might be easier to argue that there was a harmonious relationship of some kind, at least historically, it is, 'harmonious relationship' seems elusive," adding that the likelihood of the church and club "falling into disrepair appears remote."

Lisa Kersavage, director of advocacy and policy for The Municipal Art Society, said "we believe there will be shadow impacts on historic resources, especially on the low-rise landmarks and light-sensitive open spaces like MOMA's sculpture garden."

One resident in the area told the commission the tower's needle-like design was "disjointed," another said it was aa "stab in the heart of the neighborhood."

The tower would provide MOMA with about 50,000 square feet of exhibition space and about 10,000 square feet of basement storage space in the proposed tower. It would be a dramatic addition to the skyline as it has angled, tapered north and south facades and diagonal bracing. It would contain a 100-room, "seven-star" hotel, and 120 "highest-end residential condominiums" in addition to MOMA expansion.
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Additional Info About the Building

Architecture Critic Carter Horsley Since 1997, Carter B. Horsley has been the editorial director of CityRealty. He began his journalistic career at The New York Times in 1961 where he spent 26 years as a reporter specializing in real estate & architectural news. In 1987, he became the architecture critic and real estate editor of The New York Post.
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